Like everyone else, I packed up my bag mid-March 2020, thinking I’d be back in my classes in a few weeks. I left my games and materials in my locker, taking home the essentials: planner, textbook, extra snacks (of course). Here in Spain, I was locked in my apartment for the next three months. Working for a no-tech high school, it was impossible to keep up with students during this time; the school posted work on the website and we hoped for the best. I wasn’t ready to teach in a pandemic, let alone teach language during a pandemic.
Last year, I changed schools (I loved the first school, but had to switch due to visa restrictions) and worked in an elementary school that returned to 100% in-person classes. I was so nervous about the year, stocking up on masks and even eye-protection because we didn’t know nearly as much about COVID as we do now. I was really nervous about teaching in an elementary school, because younger kids touch everything and after six months at home, kids wanted to be with each other.
Here’s What I Learned about Language Learning in a Pandemic
Like i said, I was really nervous. Would my students understand me with a mask? How could they pick up correct pronunciation with the muffled-ness? What would happen if they got sick? What if I got sick? What if we went back online?
After the school year started, I felt a lot better. Here’s what I learned.
Learn your school’s policies.
In 2020, Spanish schools required a PCR test before starting school. I wasn’t able to get one right away, so I had to start school a few days later. I think I started on the third day after finally getting a Friday morning PCR. On my first day, I was handed a folder with COVID policies. Inside, there was information about which entrances and exits to use, the timings of students’ arrival and dismissal, temperature checks and follow-ups, recess, lunch, and classroom activities.
Maybe your school is requiring a work packet for students at home. Here’s a free work packet from Martina Bex @ The Comprehensible Classroom.
This is a big one. What happens if a student gets COVID? Who stays home? How many student cases does it take to quarantine a class?
Your school should have responses to all of these questions, and others. My school had a designated COVID person, who kept track of cases and policy compliance.
Masks, Temperatures, and Supplies
Whether or not masks are required at your school, it’s important to have extra masks on hand. They break, or you may notice a student has been wearing the same mask several days in a row. Your school may be providing extra masks for students and/or staff, and it’s important to know where to re-stock.
Enforcing Mask Policies in the Classroom
I’ve seen teachers yell at students about their masks and, honestly, it isn’t the right way to go. A better way to handle mask-compliance is tapping your nose when a mask falls down or asking a student to please wear their mask. Nervous students generally keep an eye on others and remind them to wear their masks. Working with 200 fifth- and sixth-graders, I only had one student who struggled with his mask, and he has cognitive disabilities. By November, he was wearing his mask without issue.
Is your school checking students’ temperatures? What’s the policy for that? Who calls home?
My school had a beautifully choreographed system for student entrances into the building and temperature checks in the morning. There was also a designated COVID point-person who dealt with any fevers or COVID cases. Check with your school to see what they’re doing regarding temperature checks, and make sure you know the protocol for sick students. You don’t want to be searching for this information when a feverish student is standing in front of you, so make sure to review it frequently or keep it in an easy-to-find place.
Absences: COVID, Quarantine, and Life
This is really important, and can be nerve-wracking. It’s the first question I asked when I started a new job last fall: What happens if I get sick?
The unfortunate reality is that teachers don’t have unlimited sick days, and we’re usually stuck with only a few days. You might be carrying over some days from a previous year, or you might not.
- Find out how quarantines affect your sick days
- Ask what happens if you get sick and miss more than your allotted sick days
- Look into supplemental insurance or ask HR if your district works with a specific company
- If you have kids, talk with your family about how you will take care of each other if any of you are quarantined or sick
Need sub plans? Check out my Spanish sub plans for any situation.
If we learned to be flexible last year, we’ll learn even more this year. Students will also be absent due to family cases, exposures, and illness. There’s also regular old absences, like family trips, doctor’s appointments, and other illness.
Here’s what I recommend for student absences:
- Have an easy, clear missing work policy
- Have a plan for quarantined students (check out that work packet from Martina Bex that I mentioned earlier)
- Make it easy for students and yourself; this time is stressful for everyone involved
When students were at home on computers while the rest of us were in class, we tried to involve them as much as possible. During group work, I gave them independent work to do so they weren’t distracting the class by talking through a speaker. They did a little more writing and online practice – conjuguemos and Duolingo are great resources.
The COVID Impact on Language Learning
There are so many people out in the world claiming that students are “behind.” Behind what? Where are they supposed to be? We’re all going through the same experiences, the same setbacks, and we’re moving forward together. Take it one step at a time, and keep these ideas in mind.
Language Learning still happens in a pandemic.
It might feel like there are so many barriers in your way, but your students WILL acquire language this year, even with the challenges from the pandemic. Students are ready to learn, and you’re ready to teach – it’s the perfect combination!
Students can hear you, and you can ask them to speak up.
Last fall, and now again, my favorite language teacher Facebook groups are filling up with panicked posts about students being able to hear us, see our mouths moving.
They can hear you.
The microphone isn’t necessary. As teachers, we’re used to projecting, and students can hear us. Remind your students that it’s a little harder to communicate, but that it’s okay. Most of the microphones I saw last year had so much feedback that teachers ended up turning them off – or worse, they were picking up and broadcasting the teacher from next door!
As for masks, I wore fabric masks all year with a plastic mouth bracket to keep the mask itself out of my mouth. I also had one of those fancy neck holders to protect my ears. My fabric masks lasted the whole year, and I kept backups in my bag just in case. They did get stretched out over time, so I’ll retire them before this school year. I know they aren’t environmentally friendly, but I’ve been wearing blue surgical masks since the school year ended. Both masks allow my friends and students to hear me.
They might do more independent work, and that’s okay.
Not sure how to handle group work in the pandemic? That’s OKAY! Students can do a little more independent work this year. If you implement it with fidelity and keep the fact that this use to be a group activity to yourself, your students will never know. My students did a lot of independent work, and we did a lot more whole-group activities than I would have done in previous years, and that’s okay. They still made plenty of progress.
Students can still engage and interact, it just looks different.
COVID language learning looks different! When I had any partner speaking activities, I encouraged students to turn to a nearby partner and talk with them. I tried to mix up the partners each time we did partner speaking so they weren’t always talking to the same person.
With group work, it was similar. I still did a lot of group work last year, and I frequently grouped students with peers seated nearby so they weren’t standing up or moving around a lot. We also used outdoor space, hallway space, and distanced desks to make group work possible. We did a lot of project work outside to minimize the risks of students working in groups indoors.
What about movement-based activities?
Movement-based activities are still possible during COVID! I did plenty of “find someone who…” activities in my classroom by dividing the class into groups and giving each group a few minutes to get up and safely walk around to talk to their peers. We also did some of these activities outside, or took turns in pairs or smaller groups. Our students sit so much of the day; it’s so important to get them moving.
Blog post coming soon about movement-based activities!
You choose how COVID impacts language learning.
Of course you should always plan carefully, and you’ll fall into a planning rhythm this year, but it’s good to have backup plans. It would be terrible if you planned a big class activity and you come into class and see that a handful of students have been quarantined, making your awesome activity impossible for that day. Check out this blog post about quick, effective planning.
Keep a backup activity on hand.
You never know what might happen, and it’s easier to have something you can quickly pull out and do in class rather than trying to create a whole new lesson in the moment.
Set up your space.
Keep your students and their safety in mind as you set up your space. Keep your own safety in mind. Allow distance between desks and tables as much as you can. As much as it pains me to say this – keep desks apart. Don’t get me wrong, I love group and partner desk arrangements, but this isn’t the year for them. They will make a comeback, but we aren’t there yet.
Make sure students have access to materials they need, and consider where you’ll have hand sanitizer and trash around your room. You want to be sure students can enter, clean up, and throw things away without blocking traffic or instruction in your room.
Students are as ready to learn as ever. They’ve missed being in the classroom, being with their peers, and being with you. I know it’s rough, but offering extra support is going to be key this year. I’m choosing NOT to say “extra” support because I want to remind you to only take on as much as you feel comfortable. Don’t do anything extra. Take a step back and ask, “How can I simplify this?” It’ll be easier for you and for students when you think about it this way.
Post coming soon about my favorite pandemic resources! In the meantime, here are some awesome online resources I have loved using this past year:
- Forvo.com is an awesome pronunciation dictionary that students can use to check their pronunciation at home or in virtual and digital classes
- Wordreference.com is my absolute favorite dictionary of all time because it provides definitions in context instead of direct translations
- Jamboard is a phenomenal resource for collaboration or sharing ideas with students in class, and I use it during every virtual class
Take care of yourself.
Set limits to what you will do.
There’s only so much you can do. Just like any other year, consider how much time you’re willing to spend in your classroom or working on “school stuff,” and set a hard stopping point. Make plans (virtual or not) to get yourself out of the classroom or the house. Knowing where to draw the line makes it easier to say “no” when the time comes.
For example, I had a parent ask me for extra tutoring outside of class this year. It isn’t required by my school, and we have office hours with another teacher in the department. This would have required extra planning and work on my part. I didn’t have the mental bandwidth, as sweet as the student was. I looked at my schedule with my hard cutoff time, tried to move a few things around, and quickly realized I couldn’t. I wrote the parent and said no. I told her about office hours, and suggested a web page for online (paid) tutoring.
Having set that “hard line” of when I would stop working made it easier to say no. I’m working on finding my boundaries for this upcoming school year now.
Keep it simple.
This year will be what it will be. Students will learn, you will grow as an educator, and we’ll all be stronger for it. Your lessons and activities can be simple, straightforward, and easy to engage with. It also makes it easier to share your resources with others, in case another teacher is out or needs a backup activity for the day.